As tiny hamlets go, Abergwesyn is nothing out of the ordinary. It sits nestled in a delightful part of Mid Wales, with the River Irfon running through it. It’s all rather lovely and remote, but there’s not a lot that sets it apart from other Welsh villages. In fact, you could pass through it on the way through from Llanwrytd Wells to Beulah and not give it a second look.
But to do so would be to miss out on what is in all probability one of the most epic driving roads in the country. Hell, I’d even go as far as saying it could be amongst the best in Europe. I’m talking about the Abergwesyn Pass, a 20 mile stretch of road that crosses the Cambrian Mountains to the town of Tregaron. I’ve been on the road before, but that was 25 years ago and, being a child at the time, I didn’t appreciate it for what it was. The single highlight for me was the 1 in 4 hill on the Abergwesyn side of the road which, from the back seat of a lethargic Citroën GS Pallas, felt like a climb of epic proportions. Today, the signs have been rewritten to 25% and I know the hill by its proper name of Devil’s Staircase. It’s no less of a climb, but it’s no longer a challenge to modern cars.
The Devil’s Staircase could be a standout feature, but the road offers so much more than a zig-zag-hill.
Following a narrow and twisty exit from the village, the road passes through some trees before revealing one of the most breathtaking and rugged views in the whole of Wales. You’re greeted with the sight of a single track road that carves its way through the bottom of the valley in an area known as Abergwesyn Common. The first time you see it, you’d be forgiven for changing down a cog or two and attacking the twists and turns at full pelt. But to do so would be a mistake, as this first stretch of the Abergwesyn Pass deserves respect. The roaming sheep are a constant presence and will catch out the unwary, as will the rocks that menacingly hug the roadside.
After a couple of miles the road hits the valley floor and crosses the river in three places before it climbs the Devil’s Staircase. The crossing points are bridges, but the debris and broken bollards are a sign that after heavy rainfall, these effectively become fords. If you stop to take in the dramatic landscape surrounding you, you can’t help but think back to the generations who would have passed through this point. Many on horseback, probably without the benefit of bridges. This rugged landscape called for rugged people.
The road then climbs the Devil’s Staircase which, even in 2011, is rather aptly named. The countless grit bins are a indication of how treacherous this road can be during the winter months. There are no run-off roads to offer security to those coming down. Instead, the road winds its way through the trees to the top of the mountain via a couple of hairpin bends. At the top, it opens up to reveal more stunning views of the surrounding peaks and gives you a chance to change out of first gear. But it isn’t long before you encounter a second 1 in 4, this time descending down the other side of the mountain. You have a near perfect view of the entire descent, complete with bollards and grit bins. Time to select a low gear and use engine braking where possible!
At the bottom of the hill there’s an opportunity to turn left to Llyn Brianne reservoir, more on this to follow. But the Abergwesyn Pass continues up and around a right hand bend before opening up to reveal more breathtaking views. By now, the wonderful vistas are becoming all too common, but it’s impossible to become blasé about them. Even if they are becoming a distraction on a bloody good drive.
After passing into the county of Ceredigion, the road continues to snake through the countryside, passing over cattle grids and bridges, before arriving at what must be the most remote phone and post boxes in the whole of Wales. The little red boxes at Nantymaen act like beacons in this remote and green wilderness and serve only to let you know that you haven’t quite left civilisation behind after all.
If I continued to describe the road from this point onwards, I fear it could become a little dull to read. But a quick, waffle-free summary would be hairpins, straights, curves, bridges, crests and views. And when you think you’ve had enough of hairpins, straights, curves, bridges, crests and views, a few more appear on the horizon. It really is undiluted and wonderful joy.
As a drivers’ road, it isn’t perfect. The conditions can catch out the unwary and you do need your wits about you. First there’s the occasional damp patch that normally appears mid corner. Even after a prolonged dry spell, (rare in this part of Wales!), there’s often a small stream running across sections of the Pass. Rainfall also has a knack of bringing stones and rocks on to the road, making unexpected braking a little precarious. There are also potholes and the aforementioned sheep to be aware of.
But none of these detract from what is an awesome and challenging stretch of road. You’re able to feel more detached from the modern world here than anywhere else I’ve been in Britain. On the four times I drove the road this month, I only encountered half a dozen other cars, two log lorries and a post van. The only delays you’ll experience will be waiting in a passing place for a biker to pass. Rush hours have a whole different meaning up here.
In truth, the Abergwesyn Pass is at the heart of a network of drivers’ road that criss-cross the region. The previously mentioned road to Llyn Brianne is in many ways a better road than the Pass itself. With superb visibility and stretches wide enough for two cars, the road to the reservoir is delightful. There are two junctions off the Pass, both of which lead to a bridge across the river, before the road carries on to the reservoir itself. It’s well worth a visit if only for the ribbon of road that skirts around the water, which is reminiscent of the kind you’ll find in the mountainous regions of Europe.
Then there’s the near-faultless Aberystwyth mountain road that must be as near to a perfect drivers’ road that can be found in this country. Or the B4358 from Newbridge-on-Wye to Beulah which presents ten miles of perfect tarmac and glorious bends. Or I could mention the dramatic Elan Valley road or A470 from Builth to Brecon. The list goes on.
The fact is, Mid Wales is a driver’s paradise. Empty roads, dramatic scenery and a damn site closer than the Alps. I will be returning.
In fact, I’m planning on going back as soon as next month.
Apologies for the awful quality of the photos. I was too busy driving and forgot to pack the camera!